SAN SALVADOR, El Salvador – In Cantón Petacones, a locality on the outskirts of the municipality of Apopa, police discovered a gruesome sight on Feb. 4: the dismembered bodies of Estrella del Carmen Márquez and Guadalupe Abigail López, two 16-year-old students at the nearby Alfredo Cristiani School.
“It is not fair that they did this to me,” said the grieving mother of Estrella, who is in a special program to help the victims of violence, which is why her name can’t be made public. “I ask for justice.”
So do those who knew the 15 other students who have been murdered since the start of the new year, as a wave of violence has engulfed a poor country that police claim is home to 13,000 gang members among the nation's seven million residents.
The escalating rate in violent crime, especially murder, extortion and kidnapping, has made many Salvadorans fear for their lives in a nation in that is becoming bloodier by the week.
The numbers are chilling: Last year was the country’s most violent in its history, considering there were 4,367 documented murders, an average of 12 per day, according to data from the institute of forensic medicine, the attorney general’s office and the country's national police.
But it's gotten even worse this year, as the country is averaging 13 homicides every 24 hours. The murder rate has gone from 56 killings per 100,000 residents in 2008 to 71 per 100,000 last year.
The Salvadoran chamber of commerce (Cámara Salvadoreña de Comercio) has proposed a project called “I demand to live without fear” (Yo exijo vivir sin miedo) that calls on the Salvadoran government to restructure its failed war on crime. The campaign, which leans toward decreasing gang violence, is being promoted on Facebook and on numerous Salvadoran social networks.
“Our country has fallen into a state of impotency,” reads a statement from the chamber of commerce. “This is harmful because it limits the possibilities for personal development, halts economic activity and strangles us as a society into feeling helpless and hopeless. The problem has become intolerable and uncontrollable.”
Salvadoran President Mauricio Funes, who has been heavily criticized for his administration's unsuccessful strategies to fight crime, has sought advice from officials from different sectors on how to make streets safer.
When Funes learned of the murder of the 16-year-old students, he announced he was shifting his focus in the war on crime from prevention to enforcement.
“We are conscious of the upsurge of violence, as the gangs are organized, armed criminals and many are drug traffickers,” Funes said. “We have no reason to hide it: Our institutions have been weakened by organized crime.”
But here's the reality: In the 10 days following the beginning of Funes' consultations, there were 137 murders – that's an average of one every 105 minutes.
Henry Campos, the vice minister of public security, confirmed Funes' plan involved adding to the already 2,300 military soldiers who patrol the streets alongside police.
But here's the catch: The soldiers can only patrol the streets in the defense of national sovereignty, according to the constitution, so they can't participate in missions of public security.
They simply are there to guide the police.
The government also is deciding whether to re-allocate the US$28.5 million it has given the police, as it believes it might be better to bolster investigative units, crime labs and police weaponry than maintain the current system.
“We are not too late,” Funes said. “We don’t have a failed state and we have the capacity to respond.”